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Pneumonia Kills One Million Kids Every Year

A Somali mother and her older child wait in line for her baby to receive a five-in-one vaccine against several potentially fatal childhood diseases, at the Medina Maternal Child Health center in Mogadishu, Somalia Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Ben)
Every year, more than one million children die from pneumonia. It’s the single biggest killer of kids under age five globally. On World Pneumonia Day, health officials say there are simple, but effective ways to prevent these deaths.

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The theme of this year’s World Pneumonia Day is “Innovate to End Child Pneumonia.” Dr. Elizabeth Mason is the World Health Organization’s Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health.

“Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs where the lung tissue itself actually gets infected. And so the oxygen, when you breathe, can’t pass through into the bloodstream. So it makes it more difficult for the child to breathe, therefore, the child can succumb to the infection.”

The type of pneumonia that usually kills is a bacterial infection, although there are viral forms of the illness.

Mason said, “Worldwide, more than one million children die under the age of five years every year. The actual number that gets pneumonia is a hundred fold that. So a billion children will be actually getting pneumonia, but most of them fortunately will actually be able to receive the antibiotics that they need.”

Most of the pneumonia deaths occur in developing countries where access to medicine may be limited. The younger the child, the more vulnerable. And being malnourished or infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, also sharply raises the risk of death.

UNICEF Senior Health Specialist, Dr. Mark Young, said many child deaths from pneumonia are preventable.

“First of all, just at a basic protection level, if a child gets good nutrition, exclusive breastfeeding, if they’ve got access to safe water and sanitation and hand washing – those sorts of things protect the child from getting pneumonia in the first place. Actually preventing, we can also use immunization. There are very effective immunizations.”

And if a child does become infected with the pneumonia bacteria?

Young said, “It is quite easily treated. We have very effective antibiotics. In particular, the recommended antibiotic is amoxicillin in a dispersible tablet format, which is very child friendly, very easy for children to take. One of the difficulties though is that the disease needs to be recognized by the caregiver, by the family. You know, the child with a cough or difficulty breathing. So that needs to be recognized and the caregiver and the family then needs to seek appropriate care in order the get the appropriate, proper treatment.”

Many countries are improving access to treatment for pneumonia, as well as diarrhea, another major killer of young children.

Also, The GAVI Alliance, which helps to increase access to immunizations, says it’s supporting more than 50 countries to introduce the pneumococcal vaccine by 2015.